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Solar farm harnesses the sun on a small scale

SEALY, Texas (AP) — Joey Romano, a Houstonian who has worked in real estate development and in the renewable energy field, is combining the two in his newest project: a 12-acre solar farm 50 miles west of Houston. Romano refers to his new endeavor as "farm-to-market solar energy," borrowing a...

SEALY, Texas (AP) — Joey Romano, a Houstonian who has worked in real estate development and in the renewable energy field, is combining the two in his newest project: a 12-acre solar farm 50 miles west of Houston.

Romano refers to his new endeavor as "farm-to-market solar energy," borrowing a phrase typically associated with country roads or, in the foodie world, with organically grown fruits and vegetables.

The recently completed solar plant stands in stark contrast to the rural properties alongside it where horses roam amid stacks of hay.

"It's on an FM road, but it's a similar model to farmers taking their produce to market," Romano told the Houston Chronicle ( ), squinting under the bright sun on a recent visit to the site.

Unlike traditional solar programs, he said, the farm-to-market approach will give consumers the ability to buy electricity harvested from a local farm. The project has the capacity to power 300 homes within CenterPoint's distribution area.

Romano wants the farm to be a place where his customers and locals can visit. He plans to hold events there, partnering with other like-minded businesses or non-profits, and host educational tours though area schools.

"We want to make it a space where customers can come out and see where their electricity is produced," said Romano, president of Harvest Moon Renewable Energy Co., a family-run business. "We plan to have honey bees out there and wildflowers."

Their farm is on FM 3013 just south of Interstate 10 in Austin County.

It was previously pasture land, like much of the property around it.

"There are a lot of great sites like this that would be prime for this type of low-impact development where it otherwise would be farmland," Romano said. "And that's kind of the model. When we call it farm-to-market solar energy we're trying to take the model that's out there in terms of local farmers, family farms that are planting, harvesting and bringing it to market."

Solar is booming across the state amid lower costs and regulations and growing consumer enthusiasm about the environment.

While the biggest solar plants are in West Texas, smaller ones ranging from 15 to 30 megawatts have been built in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Fort Worth as local utilities have offered rebates and other incentive programs to encourage solar development.

Houston hasn't seen those incentives and therefore has had little of the expansion, said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, an Austin-based environmental advocacy group.

But with solar having become much less expensive, the incentives are no longer as much of an issue, he said. Plus, an investment tax credit was recently renewed on the federal level.

"With the new tax credit being renewed, and the fact that solar is cheap now and with the public appetite for solar, they could make some money on it while also doing good," Metzger said.

Harvest Moon's solar array was installed and completed at the end of last year. It includes about 15,000 panels that cam produce 1.5 megawatts of power.

Robust transmission lines already exist in the area, in part because of a large Wal-Mart distribution center nearby.

The installation was remarkably simple, Romano said.

The panels, each able to provide about 100 watts of electricity, are relatively light. They clamp together and are mounted to 1,000 poles built into the ground. The system is designed to sustain high winds of 150 miles per hour.

All that's left to do on the property, Romano said, is "dress it up."

There will be parking added for visitors and room for people to gather. But there won't be any flashy signs or lights.

Romano said he prefers to keep it low key.

He's taken the same approach to other his projects.

Before the Sealy project came along, Romano spent several years developing solar-powered shipping containers. In 2011, he developed a small apartment building in Montrose where he incorporated solar power, a rainwater collection system and a green roof.

Harvest Moon partnered with MP2 Energy, a retail electricity provider based in The Woodlands, to market the solar energy through a fully renewable power plan.

The plan is designed in part for those who are interested in renewable energy but can't put solar panels on their homes or offices because they rent, or they don't want to commit to the upfront costs in case they have to move.

"It's a low-risk way to engage in solar," said Maura Yates, vice president of sustainable solutions with MP2 Energy.

The company is marketing Harvest Moon's farm-to-market program as a fixed-rate plan for five years to hedge against future price increases. There's no penalty to cancel.

For consumers, the cost works out to be between 12 and 13 cents per kilowatt hour, comparable to other renewable plans. Commercial customers can have plans tailored to their needs.

"While that's higher than what other retail electric prices go for today if natural gas prices go up again it's possible you could end up saving money by having locked in these rates," Metzger said.

The way the system works is that Harvest Moon sells the power directly to MP3, which then blends it with other power from renewable plants in Texas that the retailer manages, including landfill gas plants, wind farms and biomass facilities.

Nationwide, solar is gaining huge traction in the electricity market.

A recent report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration said that for the first time more large-scale solar farms are expected to be built this year than any other power source. A good bit of that growth is in West Texas where wide-open landscapes bake under the sun.

Still, solar only accounts for about 1 percent of the nation's total power supply, the EIA said.

Harvest Moon's Sealy project, which cost about $3 million to build, is small potatoes compared to the big solar plants.

"There are people out in the desert doing 100 megawatts," Romano said. "We're a family company. It fits our scale."

Romano sees the Sealy farm as one of many long-term investments for the family business, like the apartment building, which was financed with family money.

"It's things we feel like will benefit the community long term, be financially sustainable, but something at the end of the day we can feel proud of," he said.


Information from: Houston Chronicle,